NEW ORLEANS – Before last year’s Bleu and White scrimmage, the first under head coach Mike Newell, Dillard University’s men’s basketball team was an unknown. The Bleu Devils were coming off of nine consecutive losing seasons.
This year is completely different. Dillard finished second in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference during the 2015-16 regular season, them steamrolled its way to the its first GCAC tournament championship since the 2001 and first postseason appearance since 2003. These are not the same old Bleu Devils.
Changing the expectations and the mindset at Dillard was job one for Newell and his staff. “There’s no doubt that (we) want to create a type of atmosphere that changes the culture,” he said. The student body has been great, now we just need to get the community to come out…We’re a national player now.”
This season, the Bleu Devils are no longer a secret. On the strength of their run to the round of 16 at the Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship and with the return of eight of their top nine scorers, Dillard finds itself in the position of the hunted instead of the hunter.
“To be honest, I love pressure,” said Demetric Austin. “Coach Newell, he loves pressure. That’s why we work very well together. With that target on our back, it just makes us work even harder.”
To add even more pressure, the Bleu Devils have been picked as the number one team in the nation by Sporting News magazine. The NAIA Coaches’ preseason poll will be released October 25.
Newell added, “We’re happy to be preseason number one. The main thing is respect. Some kids will succumb to the pressure; this group here loves to compete. We’ve been planting this seed since we got here, of winning the national championship.”
And that’s just the start. Coach Newell is focused on building a program at Dillard, not just creating a one-hit wonder.
“Last year we had no seniors,” said Newell. “Now we’ve got five seniors, six juniors, two sophomores, and four freshmen. So, we’ve balanced the classes and each year we’re going to be a team to be reckoned with.”
But for a couple of hours last night the focus was on fun as Dillard Athletic Director Kiki Baker Barnes coached the Bleu Team to a 100-97 overtime win over President Walter Kimbrough’s White Team.
The White Team lead by seven points in regulation with under 30 seconds to play, but the Bleu Team made a furious comeback to force the five-minute overtime.
Austin, Dillard’s All-American forward led the Bleu Team and all scorers with 29 points to go along with eight rebounds; Montrey Thomas, the 2016 GCAC Freshman of the Year, had 27 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists; Ramon Johnson led the White Team with 24 points and nine boards; and Dequandre Dentmond finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
One thing that was evident was that this year’s edition of the Bleu Devils is deeper, taller and more athletic than last year’s squad.
“On offense we have a lot of scorers,” Austin added. “Everyone on our team can score, so we’re definitely a threat there…On defense we’re very long, our frontcourt is all 6-7 and up so we’re going to definitely cause some problems there.”
Dillard boasts eight players on its roster 6-6 or taller, compared to last year’s team that had just five. That added depth has heightened the level of competition in practices as players work to earn their minutes.
Hightower noted that “With this team everybody has to bring it every day, in practices, in games. If not, anyone on the roster can play; any one on the roster, one through 16, is capable of scoring 20. Every day if we come out here and make each other better, we can have a great season.”
That season begins on October 29 when Dillard hosts the University of Mobile at 2:00 p.m. at The Battlefield at Dent Hall.